Despite Loss, These Aren't Same Old Rockets

The ending was all too familiar, but the ride was so, so different.

Sure, history will show another Rockets season concluded without a title, this time on an 89-70 second-round, Game 7 loss to the Lakers on Sunday afternoon at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. And like so many seasons before, the 2008-09 campaign really ended when an X-ray displayed a fracture in a bone on Yao Ming's left foot.

"In games like this, it would have been nice to have a low-post presence," Aaron Brooks said after the game.

This group, however, was special. These Rockets had incredible heart, evident throughout the season and most recently in Game 4 and Game 6 romps over LA. The former came only 18 hours after Yao's prognosis was revealed, while the latter came two days after a 40-point defeat. These Rockets had superb leadership, shown in, among a number of areas, the moving pre-game speech before Game 4 from Shane Battier. These Rockets were tough-minded and resilient, clutched and focused.

"I'm really proud of our team," coach Rick Adelman said. "The way they responded, even going into the series, losing Yao, we won two games after that. I'm very proud of these guys, they bust their tails."

But as it often does in a seven-game series, heart ultimately lost out to talent. Without Yao, the Rockets' starting center was 6-6 Chuck Hayes. Without Yao, there were no easy baskets. Without Yao, Ron Artest's quality shots disappeared when he was pushed into the Number One option role, shooting 17-of-61 (28 percent) for the final four games of the series. Without Yao, Brian Cook -- who made former Rocket Ryan Bowen look like an All-Star by comparison -- was thrust into meaningful playing time for two games.

Seven-footers Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, and near seven-footer Lamar Odom, effectively played volleyball on the offensive glass, towering over helpless and undersized Rockets' defenders.

Even considering the mismatch, the Rockets were so driven, so confident that they appeared heartbroken after the game.

"I don't think we were tight," Artest said. "I just think we were maybe thinking too much. It's hard to explain. We made passes that led to turnovers. We didn't get a chance to get Shane [Battier] open. We didn't get a call, we didn't get a chance to drive."

But give them a few days to let the emotions wear off, and they'll be proud. Likewise, the city of Houston should be proud of them. They broke through the first-round barrier for the first time in 12 years, and took the Number One-seeded Lakers to the brink.

The Rockets squeezed every ounce out of their talent and then some, even with over half their payroll -- Yao and Tracy McGrady -- on the bench in street clothes. Led by contributions across the roster from the likes of Battier, Artest, Brooks, Luis Scola, Carl Landry, Von Wafer, Kyle Lowry and more, the superb collection of role players assembled by GM Daryl Morey somehow gave the star-studded Lakers everything they could handle, even with no stars of their own.

"That's one tough team over there," Lakers forward Trevor Ariza said of the Rockets. "They played hard no matter what the situation, and when they got one down, they played even harder. So you have to give them a lot of respect. They gave us a run for our money."

Morey heads into the off-season with numerous questions. Will the Rockets keep Artest, who despite his erratic play remains a fan favorite and the team's emotional leader? Will they count on McGrady to make an inspired comeback and wait for his contract to expire next summer to make a play in 2010 free agency, or will they attempt to cash in his $23 million expiring deal in a trade to steal a star from a financially-strapped franchise?

Will they continue to build around the premise of Yao playing for most of an 82 game schedule and postseason (something he's yet to do since 2004-05), or after his latest foot injury, will they make fundamental changes to the way he's used? And remember, Yao, too, has the option of becoming a free agent next summer.

Those storylines will unfold over the next several months, so stay tuned. Until then, the focus should center on the attributes they do have. When the stars went down, this group seemed a collection of random spare parts, ranging from every mother's dream (Battier) to every mother's worst nightmare (Artest).

But together, it meshed beautifully, and the results have been unforgettable. Time after time, we counted them out, and each time, they jumped off the mat. When they collapsed in the final game of the regular season in Dallas, blowing the Number Two seed, they won by 27 in Game 1 in Portland.

When McGrady went down for the season in February, they won six straight games, eight of nine and 11 of 13. When Yao's year was cut short in the LA series, the role players didn't sulk, but instead blew the Lakers out of the building the very next day, taking a 29-point lead in the process.

In the end, the ultra-talented Lakers finally delivered a punch from which the Rockets couldn't stand back up. This group's legacy, however, is too great for one game to taint.

They took Houston on an amazing ride, and for the first time in over a decade, this truly had the feel of a basketball city. The Rockets brought Houstonians together, from the sea of red shirts across the city on gamedays to the conversations at every turn to ESPN's highest-ever network rating for a basketball game.

Over a decade later, Clutch City seems to have finally been reborn.

Even in defeat.

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Ben DuBose